“It’s not just about paper achievement anymore. It’s about the holistic development of the child. But if you are to nurture the holistic development of the child, what is it you need to acquire to be effective? You need to understand your learner, you need to understand the learning and teaching context, you need to have an education philosophy, you need to think about what you can improve on in the classroom, you need to know about what is important for learning and what is not important. You need to know all those things. And it’s not easy.”
Dr. Chua is an Assistant Dean at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and she spoke with the casual thoroughness of someone who has been thinking deeply about these topics for years.
We had been looking forward to this visit ever since we began to learn about Singapore’s education system. Singapore’s students score near the top of all international assessments in both academic performance and happiness. Consequently, NIE has a reputation as one of the best education schools in the world. We were curious to learn more about NIE’s approach and we felt honored that they had invited us to visit.
A Values Based System
“I would like to establish that ours is a values-based education program. It’s very important that our teachers are anchored on values. So we have a values-based program where student-teachers get to know more about themselves as teachers, what matters to them, what is important to them. They develop their own teaching philosophy.”
Dr. Chua went on to explain that, of course, they also have courses about pedagogy, academic content, behavior management etc… and she described the field experience as the spine of the program. But it was clear that this emphasis on values, the type of teacher they want to be, created the context for everything else that transpires in the program.
There is an understanding at NIE that the job of an education program is much bigger than just telling teachers what to do and how to do it. They know that in order to be effective, teachers must have a clear sense of who they are, why they do this work, and what their own personal vision of success looks like. This is probably one of the biggest differences between teaching and other professional occupations.
Inquiry v. Reflection
“I asked myself, ‘In the end, what is the most important thing that we need to equip our teachers with?’ They need to own their practice in the classroom, but beyond owning their practice, they need to know how to go about refining it for the benefit of the students. The inquiry process is fundamental because, regardless of the changes in the teaching and learning environment, this will help them help the students.”
The inquiry process Dr. Chua describes begins with a question and then employs a variety of factors: conversations with colleagues, observations, anecdotals from students, and quantitative data, to explore that question. All of this information is framed by the original question and filtered through the teacher’s education philosophy. And that last part, which grew out from the values piece above, is of critical importance, “Teachers make decisions all the time for our learners. So it’s very important for them to be clear on their teaching identity, to know their teaching philosophy. Because those are the anchors that will help them make their decisions and will help inform their inquiry.”
In the United States, we talk a lot about reflection and we talk a lot about data. But in the U.S. our reflection is often either too amorphous or too mechanical, and it is nearly always narrowly focused on ‘standards mastery.’ Our reflection is rarely driven by personalized questions, because the question is always the same: “What standards don’t students get?” This type of reflection makes a kind of logical sense, but it also leads to faculties who roll their eyes at the prospect of another data meeting and generally feel disconnected from the priorities around their own development.
By contrast, the inquiry system at NIE is both more intensive and more nuanced. It recognizes that the complexity of teaching means there are a variety of questions that can be asked, and since teachers have more ownership over the process, they are also more motivated to follow through with it.
Paths for Professional Advancement
One of the most interesting structural differences between the education systems in Singapore and the United States is in the opportunities for professional advancement. In the U.S. we don’t really have a system. Individual principals handle promotions in their schools however they want to. Teachers interested in district level jobs must stay on top of openings. Most teachers go through their whole careers without anyone asking them about where they want to be five years down the road. Many teachers leave the profession because they don’t see a path forward.
Singapore used to have a similar situation, but they realized that in order to increase the professionalism of the teaching field, they would need to create more defined tracks for advancement. They created three: 1) Leadership, 2) Teaching, and 3) Specialists
In a teacher’s second or third year, their principal will begin talking seriously with them about what track they are most interested in. Whichever track they choose will lead to them getting additional training in that field. The leadership track can lead to them becoming a principal or superintendent. The teaching track leads to work as an instructional coach or master teacher who supports people at a number of schools. The specialist track is more focused on content and can lead to developing national curriculum for the Ministry of Education.
In the U.S., we often talk about the need to increase the professional status of teaching. But we normally limit that conversation to teacher pay. I think normalizing paths for professional advancement would do at least as much for teacher retention and morale as more pay would.
“Teach Less, Learn More” and the Importance of a Coordinated System
While researching Singapore, I discovered that the national education motto was “Teach Less, Learn More.” I really loved the power and simplicity of those four words, but I had a lot of questions about how that idea had been rolled out to schools. I believe in the spirit of “Teach Less, Learn More,” but I also know that if someone is teaching less, then they are covering less content. I asked Dr. Chua about the potential tension between depth and breadth in a system that is still ultimately tied to standardized tests. Her answer gave me even more respect for Singapore’s education system, “Yes, during any implementation we need to be mindful that there will be a transition. There was talk, ‘yes we want to teach less, and learn more, but our syllabus hasn’t been reduced enough to create the time for students to acquire knowledge on their own.’ But slowly, because this is an evolving thing, the syllabus is constantly being reviewed to see how much can be cut. And today schools have different learning environments, but I think fundamentally they all recognize that it’s not all just about content knowledge.”
So the system identified a priority and all of the parts of the system began to adjust to better align with that priority. And this is something we saw over and over again in Singapore: there is a very high level of coordination between individual schools, NIE, and the Ministry of Education. Each of these three partners work together with a degree of common purpose that is hard to imagine in the United States. The result is that reform nowadays follows the maxim, “Bottom up initiative, Top down support.” This spirit was echoed during actual school visits we did as well. It’s really quite remarkable.
Our conversation with Dr. Chua ranged over a number of other topics. We shared stories from the other schools we visited and laughed about some of the common challenges we face. And something we said triggered Dr. Chua to share some final thoughts as we were about to go, “There are a lot of things that distract us from what’s important. A lot of times, the urgency of something doesn’t mean that it’s the most important. But we tend to do the urgent rather than the important, because doing the important takes time, and it takes time to see the results. But how are you able to move away from the noises and focus on the important and not the urgent so that, in the years to come, we can see the types of learners we want to see?”
Urgency is a buzz word in a lot of education circles, and I agree with the reason why. Incremental progress is too often synonymous with low-expectations. But I also think that there’s a lot of truth in what Dr. Chua is saying here. Sometimes focusing on the urgent can have a simplifying effect that keeps us from the bigger, more important, context of what’s possible. The world is no longer about paper achievement. Here’s to having the patience to focus on what’s important.